I recently had the good fortune of meeting Dr Matthew Illsley, a Biomaterials Research Fellow at Brighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences. We got talking about the situation that I know from personal experience about the incredible healing properties of lavender essential oil but that when I raised the question of why it wasn’t used in burns units for example (where it could speed healing and possibly save lives) he explained that the way science is allowed to proceed to establish proofs in real life makes it in practice impossible to research natural substances to the point where we can say they have proven qualities – so we are left to do what our own experiences tell us is the way forward while at the same time having scientists tell us that it is unproven and by implication the stuff of quackery.
I asked Matt to explain all this in writing so that I could share it, which he has very generously done. Here is his answer:
There are a lot of issues around this area, in fact we think about this sort of stuff a lot when trying to design our own experiments and when reading other peoples. We teach long courses on this because basically it cuts across everything.
Before you test a material on any human you need to first have proof that it’s not likely to do any harm. Sometimes people skip or cut corners on this and accidents happen like the one at Northwick Park a few years ago. Link here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22556736
This initial testing involves using cells in culture, animal testing, toxicity and biocompatibility testing, the drug or device has to be intensively tested to be sure it’s “pure” and that its guaranteed to be contaminant free, this includes insuring that it’s never had bacteria in it (sometimes this is done using the blood of crabs http://deepseanews.com/2013/08/how-horseshoe-crabs-may-have-saved-your-life/) there are a lists and lists of required testing on the FDA website.
Then once you have assurances that initial testing in the lab has gone well you can move onto people. This is sometimes years down the road. First you test various concentrations on healthy people to be sure it won’t be harmful, this is because no matter how much work you did above essentially you can never tell what will happen. Most of us have come to accept that this is a little bit mad; prior work does inform dosage and if things are really toxic they don’t get as far as people etc.
Once you’ve proved it’s not going to kill outright you can move onto people that really might need it, here the ethical considerations are myriad. Basically if you are a patient and are told there are no approved medicines for what you have but we’re trying x, you’ll probably want to have x. So there is a lot of pressure on the patient to accept any treatment offered, the ethics are supposed to be an attempt to mitigate this. There are committees, forms for patients, next of kin, clinicians, the committee looks at the study you suggest and try’s to take the role of protecting the patient from undue harm that has been unintentionally forgotten about in the rush to test.
Once ethics are in place the study size and composition are very important (they’re also ethically approved) this guide to critically examining research goes over the study size issues: http://www.olemiss.edu/celi/Files/step-by-step-guide-to-criti-research-part-1-quantitative-reseawrch.pdf
The experiment type is perhaps in the end the most important thing, does the thing you’re testing work? The only way anyone will know is if you designed the experiment properly.
There are lots of types of experiment but generally considered the current gold standard are double blind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_experiment
Double blind trials are where absolutely nobody directly involved with the project knows which drug is which and who is getting what, the test results are also done without knowing. This ensures that no funny business goes on, and only when the results are unveiled and everything has been finalised does anyone find out. Protecting this information and ensuring the right people get the right drug in a large drug trial is often contracted out: http://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Clinical-Development/CROs-Slowly-Shifting-to-Adaptive-Clinical-Trial-Designs
This whole thing is massive business. Taking a drug from discovery to market is often quoted as costing around £1 – 1.5 bn. http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2013/08/11/how-the-staggering-cost-of-inventing-new-drugs-is-shaping-the-future-of-medicine/
This massive cost is often why large pharma doesn’t touch vitamins, natural oils and historic (silver like) compounds, they’ll not be able to patent the “invention” and therefore can’t guarantee they’ll recoup the cash spent.
So, because this is the setup if you approach a clinician and say I want to test my oil on burns he’s automatically thinking it’ll be too much work/the ethics/ I already have something I know works/your oil isn’t properly tested/you’ve not done it through the right channels.”
My Comment: So there is the answer. Science is a game and the rules and practicalities rig the way it is played. So we’ll never be able to say it is scientifically proven. So, in relation to any form of natural healing we need to trust our own observations and experiences and base our actions on these.